Oliver Burkeman's tips for happiness

Oliver BurkemanJournalist Oliver Burkeman has collated all the wisdom garnered from his weekly Guardian column, This Column Will Change Your Life, communed with a range of people (experimental psychologists, Buddhists, spiritual teachers, business consultants, philosophers etc) and come to the conclusion that we've been going about happiness the wrong way.

His new book The Antidote suggests a counter-intuitive approach. Get a flavour of the book with Oliver's alternative 10 top tips for happiness.


1. Don't visualise successful outcomes

It's a staple of self-help bestsellers such as The Secret, but recent research shows that vividly picturing success - creating 'mental movies' of crossing the finish line in a race, or accumulating great wealth, or meeting the perfect partner - can backfire badly. When thirsty experimental subjects were asked to visualise drinking an icy glass of water, their energy levels actually dropped: they were less motivated to find real water because they'd imagined some. Their bodies relaxed, as if they'd already achieved their goal.

2. Embrace insecurity
We crave secure relationships, financial security, and a more general sense of safety. But Buddhists and members of other spiritual traditions have long recognised that, in doing so, we're chasing a phantom. "Security is mostly a superstition," said Helen Keller, and striving too hard for it is precisely what causes feelings of insecurity in the first place. Worse, if you ever achieved perfect safety, you wouldn't like it, because uncertainty - the situation of not knowing how the future will unfold - is the precondition for any kind of positive change. The only way to be completely, unchangingly secure would be to be dead. 

The Antidote3. Throw out your 'motivational' fridge magnets 
One key tenet of positive thinking is the importance of 'getting motivated'. But there's a hidden hazard with such advice: it promotes the idea that you need to achieve a specific state of mind before you can get down to work. Sometimes that might work. But the rest of the time, when you can't find the requisite peppy emotions, you'll have inadvertently introduced an additional barrier to action. Much more effective than 'getting motivated' - or its close cousin, 'feeling inspired' to do creative work - is the recognition that you don't have to feel like doing something in order to do it. You just have to act. 

4. Don't make detailed life-plans - instead, use 'effectuation"
Studies of successful entrepreneurs show that they rarely make detailed business plans, then fight to turn them into reality. Instead, they just start, and keep correcting their course as they go. Rather than deciding on some ambitious goal then finding a way to make it happen, 'effectuation' involves looking first at your means, not your ends. What skills, resources and social connections do you have access to, and what could you create with them? Effectuators don't act like high-end chefs, sourcing rare ingredients for the perfect dish. They're more like time-pressed home cooks, looking to see what's in the fridge and the cupboards, and starting from there. 

5. Focus on how badly things could go
The ancient Greek and Roman Stoics understood that there's great tranquility to be found in focusing not on the best-case scenario - as modern happiness gurus insist - but on the worst. Trying to persuade yourself that everything will turn out for the best can lead you into a trap: it subtly reinforces your belief that life would be utterly terrible if things didn't turn out well. Picturing the worst-case scenario in detail, by contrast, renders your fears limited and finite. The worst thing about any event, as the Stoic-influenced psychologist Albert Ellis liked to say, "is usually your exaggerated belief in its horror".

6. Instead of positive thinking, see thoughts as 'mental weather'
Meditation is in fashion, these days, as a way to combat stress. But in its original form, it's more than a calming technique - it's a radical challenge to today's 'cult of optimism'. The Buddha advised cultivating "non-attachment": not a stance of passivity towards life, but rather a capacity to stop holding tightly to specific thoughts or emotions. Meditation can help you learn to see thoughts as "mental weather" - sometimes bad, sometimes good, but not part of "you". Positive thinking, from this viewpoint, is like raging against the fact that it's raining. Better to let the rain blow over.

7. Pay attention to failure
We're conditioned to focus on success - our own and other people's - and to look for advice to successful friends, or famous figures. The problem is what's known as the 'survivor bias': just because Richard Branson, say, has a risk-taking personality and ended up being a success, you can't conclude that risk-taking leads to success. After all, if thousands of others took risks like Branson's, but failed, you'd never hear from them: they don't get to write popular autobiographies. (Even Branson himself isn't a reliable source when it comes to his own success: how would he ever know if he'd just got lucky?) Study failure as much as success, and you'll understand how the world works far better than many multi-millionaires do. 

8. Replace 'self-esteem' with 'self-acceptance'
Who'd argue with the advantages of having high self-esteem? Quite a few contemporary psychotherapists, it turns out. Repeating self-help affirmations like "I am a lovable person", studies show, can often make people feel worse: it prompts them to generate convincing counter-arguments, about why they're not unlovable. Worse, cultivating high self-esteem involves 'self-rating' - giving your whole personality one overall grade - which makes it easier to give yourself a low grade when you're feeling bad. Don't make self-acceptance conditional on thinking you're a 'good person', or you'll slide back down to low self-esteem when you do something less than good (which you will). 

Oliver Burkeman is a feature writer for the Guardian and writes a popular weekly column on psychology and the self-help industry for the Guardian Weekend entitled This Column Will Change Your Life. He has also written for Esquire, Elle, GQ and The Observer. 

9. Take heed of the 'backwards law' 
The 1960s counter-cultural philosopher called the principle at the heart of negative thinking 'the backwards law'. "When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink," he wrote, "but when you try to sink, you float." Trying really hard to be happy makes you miserable; struggling to eliminate anxiety makes you anxious. It's like the old challenge about 'not thinking of a polar bear'. Can you maintain a mind free of all polar-bear-related thoughts for a whole minute? Have a go. As soon as you try, you fail. 

10. Make death a part of life 
These days, most of us make strenuous psychological efforts to deny the inevitable fact of mortality, and we confine the dying process to hospices and nursing homes. But the largely forgotten tradition of memento mori - which persists today in the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead - takes the opposite view. By building reminders of death into daily life, we can make it less terrifying, while simultaneously infusing life with more meaning. The Buddha told his monks to meditate in mortuaries and graveyards. You might not want to go that far. But the old thought experiment of imagining your own funeral is a powerful one: looking back, how would you want to have used your life?



Last updated: about 3 years ago